I Should Not Have to be Ashamed of What I Read.

Someday I will learn this patience thing, and to not put up a post right away.   But this one… this one I really want to put out there now.

I remember at one point, some years ago, I had a conversation with my sister about our tendency to wander around in the children’s and YA sections of the bookstore.   She noted how she loved the fact that, now she was going into education, she had an excuse to explore those books.  I’d been working with kids for years, so never thought twice — no one ever asked me if the books were for the children I worked with or for myself.

I was slow to get into reading “age-appropriate” books.   Until I was about nine years old, I only read chapter books if they were required for school.  I much preferred my picture books.  Then I was finally introduced to books that I liked which didn’t contain pictures, and a monster was born…. I now devour books, I adore them all.  But, still, some of my favorites are not books that are “written for adults.”

I realized, recently, that one of the reasons I adore having my kindle is (in addition to the ability to carry a rather large library around with me without breaking my back) is that I can read whatever I want on the bus, and not worry about what other people might think.

But why should I be ashamed of what I’m reading?   The other day I saw a middle-aged man sitting next to me who was blithely reading his way through The Secret Garden.  He may have been reading it because he has a child who is reading it, or he may have wanted to read it, or perhaps it was even an old favorite.  Who knows.  And who cares?  It made me smile, because he was so engrossed in the story… and I felt a moment of happiness during my bleary-eyed bus ride, that someone was spending the ride engrossed in a really great story.

So why should I be ashamed that I am spending my own commute jumping between books?  And it really is jumping.  My current reading rotation includes: Anne of Green Gables, The essays of Montaigne, Les Miserables, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Dynamics of Faith, The Lyra Novels, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and Midnight Hour Encores.

Recently this editorial on Slate has been getting some response, as it should.  And I have to keep reminding myself to remain civil (and there is oh so much to rail against in this… I find myself wanting to go up to her and shove a copy of Tuck Everlasting and The Westing Game at her and demand that she re-read them.  Two books she mentions reading when it was “age appropriate” that I, too, read when I was younger (sixth grade reading assignments) and have re-read numerous times and find so amazing, in how they are laid out, in questions they raise.)

20140607_104633 (2)
A current snapshot of one of my bookshelves. Though most of my books currently reside across town from me, these are the ones that have made it here for now.

I have these moments where I can go into this state of being downright brutal.  Mess with me, my family, my good friends, my community and (not often, and rather outside of my control) I can turn into someone you just don’t want to mess with.  Something inside of me switches and I rock the (as one friend called it) “verbal bitch-slap.”  (Have I mentioned it seems to be a super-power I can’t call up whenever I want?  No matter how hard I try?)  I can go over-protective, in a very calm, calculated way — I see it as stepping somewhat into “mama bear” mode.

And I found myself feeling something akin to that coming on as I read this article.  How dare she do this!  How dare she try to say that the reading I do is somehow not okay?  That I should be ashamed of reading?  How dare she attack my reading (and writing) community.  Half the books that I am currently reading (okay, probably more than that, but half the ones that I read some on my commute) fall into these books that I should be ashamed of reading.  Why?  Because somehow the story is more simplistic?  Because they happen to fall into a certain category?

Others have responded very well to this article, and brought up many good points.

Shannon A Thompson wrote a great post about it, and in her response to my comment on that post noted:

 Reader shaming – especially shaming a genre marketed for young readers – is destructive in nature because it teaches them that our reading environment is judgmental. In fact, I found it blatantly rude that she attacked YA fiction because most teens (stereotypically) strive to act older than they are. By representing an older audience, this woman was practically teaching young readers that they aren’t seen as “mature” because they read YA, which – indirectly – encourages them to read other kinds of literature on the basis of being judged. So wrong. So sad.

Yes… so very much getting to (one) of the issues I have with the original article.  When you label something like this, it is creating this idea of one thing or another being “better than.”  Like there is some sort of natural progression in reading, you start with the picture books, move to pictures with words, early readers, YA, and finally “real literature.”

Please, someone show her Rose Blanche (technically a picture book, which is technically classified as a CHILDREN’S book, but that is so haunting when you read it close, so carefully worded, shifting from first to third person at a pivotal point, and so perfectly illustrated to tell an entire story above and beyond the words).

Against YA (the original article we are all responding to), makes this note:

But I remember, when I was a young adult, being desperate to earn my way into the adult stacks; I wouldn’t have wanted to live in a world where all the adults were camped out in mine. There’s a special reward in that feeling of stretching yourself beyond the YA mark, akin to the excitement of graduating out of the kiddie pool and the rest of the padded trappings of childhood: It’s the thrill of growing up.

And this just makes me sad.  And gives me a sense of pity for the author.  Who imposed this idea on her, that she had to earn her way, somehow, to a certain set of books?  That the books she was reading as a young teen were somehow like swimming in the shallow end of the pool?  Perhaps I have a skewed sense of what YA books hold, since many of my early favorites were (and still are) Holocaust memoirs.  The Cage, hardly has the feeling of “padded trappings of childhood.”

But one of the things I loved about going to the library, or the book store, was the freedom to roam.  Nothing stopped me from stepping from one section to another, no one told me I couldn’t check out a book from the “literature” section, and as I got older no one said I had to confine myself to some sort of category of “grown-up” books.  One of the wonders of story-telling is that the story can transcend other barriers that hold us apart.  Certainly, Matilda, was a different story when I read it as a child than when I read it as an adult, but it was no less powerful or awesome.

And at least one response I read began to widen the net, to tie this to other kinds of “reading-shaming” that has occurred.  Lauren Davis, in Really?  Are We still Genre Shaming People For the Books They Like?  notes:

Certain books seem to be particularly vulnerable to finger-wagging from the so-called literary elite: science fiction, fantasy, romance novels, “chick-lit,” and now young adult fiction. Fiction that has been traditionally aimed at women and young people is particularly vulnerable to the criticisms of not being serious enough, not being mature enough.

This idea that somehow certain books are more important than others, more legitimate somehow, is unnerving (and daunting as a writer!)   I recently was in a conversation about what makes a “good book.” and found myself defining a good book as “a book I enjoy, a book that can prompt good discussion or thought, or a book that I don’t like — but is still well written.”  And I put out that definition with the clear understanding that things like:  what constitutes “good discussion” or what “well written” looks like, are highly subjective.  But this definition has no limitations around (sometimes arbitrary) genre or “age definition” categories.

I love (or dislike) each book I read on its own merits.  Does it draw me in?  Does it make me think?  Does it make me smile, or cry, or laugh?  Do the characters come alive?  Does the story-line intrigue me, or frustrate me, or provide me with a sense of relaxed ease?  Do I want to turn the next page, to see what happens?  Am I sad when the story ends, because I hate to see the characters go away?  Do they live on after I close the book, alive in my thoughts?

Do not judge a book by its cover.  And don’t judge it on its categorization either… please.

I leave with the thought of Dan Seitz, who summed it up well in his article Why Adults Can, and Should, Read Young Adult Novels Without Shame:

What’s annoying about all this is that it misses the fundamental point of reading a book. Reading books to impress other people turns books into props, and that’s not what books are for. If a book is entertaining, thought-provoking, or otherwise rewarding to you, then you should read it. If not, take a moment, think about why not, and when somebody brings it up, you can say “Eh, it wasn’t for me” and elaborate if they ask. You know, like how adults discuss books.”

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